Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Questions



Yahweh, who will sojourn in Your tent, who will dwell on Your holy mountain?  Psalm 15:1

The Psalmist is searching for answers to important questions: what is the meaning and purpose of life?  What does a God-centered life look like, feel like, smell like?  And what does it mean to worship God?  That is the question above.  To journey with God in a tent is a reference to Moses and the People of God wandering in the wilderness for forty years.  During that time Moses held a capital campaign and people made offerings to make a tent or tabernacle for holding the 10 Commandments.  Later on Solomon constructed a temple in Jerusalem on a hill.  Isaiah would eventually envision people from all places streaming to the holy mountain of God.

Often the Psalmist will ask a question and then in the following verses provide answers.  Some suggest this might have even been used in the Temple liturgy with the Priest asking the question and the people of God responding with the words/answers found in the psalms.  In Psalm 15, you would assume would follow might be a list that we often come up with for being a "good Christian": go to church, give money, help a person with a cane across the street, and generally be a good person.  But that is not what Psalm 15 verse 2 says.  It start off as we might expect, that we should walk blameless.  Easily said, hard to do.  But, okay, nothing unexpected there.  So, we'd think the next thing should be about giving money.  But the second answer to the question of verse 1 is, "do justice and speaks the truth in his heart."  Okay...that is unexpected.  As the previous post explored, the Psalmist was concerned to with with the least and lowly and left behind.  That worship in the temple was not enough if our lives do not reflect the hymns we sing and the Scripture we hear.  

Of course, "doing justice" means different things to different people.  For some it means volunteering.  For others serving at a soup kitchen.  For others it means lobbying congress or trying to pass legislation.  Which is it?  Perhaps the answer is not to limit, but to expand our understanding.  Justice can be all the above and much more.  Our daily actions can either further God's realm or we can maintain the status quo.  But living a life of justice means being prayerful and thoughtful and concern for the other.  That goes against the grain of our world where self-interest and self-actualization takes most of our time.  

Yet, when we do reach out with love, when we seek to do justice, and when we try our best to share what we have with others, we are doing more than trying to share a trace of God's grace, we are also worshiping the One who seeks to reconcile this world.  May it be so for our lives this week.

Blessings ~

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Are the Psalms Prophetic?



Falsehood every person speaks...smooth talk, with two hearts they speak  Psalm 12:3

Even though I have read the psalms in several settings over the years, I don't know that I caught onto just how concerned the Psalmist is with justice.  Psalm 12 describes people who speechify with a golden tongue, only to turn around and plunder, trample on the poor.  In many ways, the poetry of the Psalms echo the cries of the prophets like Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos and Micah.  The call of the prophets is not only about an envisioned future God will usher in at some point, but for us to act faithfully today even when people speak falsehood with a smooth tongue and divided hearts.  I turn on the news and hear people with smooth talk and a smile argue that people who are the fringes of society do not need help, that they can pull themselves up with their own bootstraps.  Yet, Scripture, and especially the Psalms, have always called us to see those hanging on by a thread as people we need to reach out to with God's love.  Those who struggle need more than for us to shrug our shoulders and think, "Oh well, not my problem."  Scripture calls us to see the concern of our neighbor as our concern.

The Psalmists also deeply believed God would act, perhaps not in the way we think God should act, which is the rub with a passage like this.  Even when we take the side of the poor, the call is still to be aware of our own lips and hearts.  Sometimes we volunteer to feel good about ourselves.  Sometimes we do it secretly thinking that our actions will earn us God's favor.  We seek to care for the one on the edges simply because the person is incarnate in the image of God.  This can be tough to hold onto when the person we seek to help yells at us or pushes us away.  This can be tough to hold onto when the world preaches a gospel of fear.  This can be tough because our own lives with work and family and trying to take care of our needs often leaves us feeling frazzled and hanging by a thread ourselves and little in our energy reserves.

The Psalmist does not give us an easy answer to this problem.  The Psalmist doesn't pat us on the back and say, "Good job." Or "Hang in there."  Rather, this psalm invites us to keep listening to and to allow our still speaking God to refine us and guide us and lead us.  This means yielding to God.  This is a practice each time we bring a bag of food for the hungry or donate clothes for the naked or provide shelter for the homeless.  How do we yield to God's wisdom?

I encourage you prayerfully ponder this as you set out this week to welcome and share God's love with each and every person you brush and bump against.

May the traces of God's grace guide our outreach and sharing of that same grace this week.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Stars - Psalm 8



When I see Your heavens...the moon and the stars You fixed them.  What is man/woman that You should pay attention?  Psalm 8

Autumn is coming where I live.  Which means not only cooler, crisp air, but also less light.  Or to be more specific, less sunlight.  I woke up the other morning to go for a jog and realized even though it was warm outside, it was still dark.  I looked up and saw the stars glimmering and glistening early in the morning.  It was beautiful.

The stars have fascinated humanity for years.  They keep watch in the midst of the night.  The tiny amount of light they shower down upon us gives us hope that after the darkness, dawn will come.  And the sheer multitude of stars, even though they look so small, still have the power to make us feel insignificant.

I wonder if the Psalmist wrote Psalm 8 at night or early in the morning before dawn?  I wonder if she saw the stars, tried to count them, realized it was futile, and then asked that wonderful question, "Why in the world would God care about me?  About us?"  Look around at the leaves starting to change color or the royal, ruby red of Mums, or feel the cool wind refresh you after the warmth of the summer.  This is a beautiful world, creation sings out the glory of God.  Yet, we miss it.  Creation becomes a blur in our frenzied pace life.  If we miss God's handiwork, what makes us think that God is so concerned and caught up in us?  It is a little self-centered.  And the Psalmist asks a question we might all ponder and pray over from time to time.  

God does care about us.  God does care deeply for the creation, the world, God crafted and bares God's fingerprints.  It isn't either/or, rather the true is both/and.  The Psalmist goes on to say, not only did God carefully craft humans, but also sheep, oxen, beasts of the field, birds, and fish.  Psalm 8 is a reminder of Genesis 1 and 2.

One of the reasons why the Psalms are good to read is they do slow us down.  You can speed read, but chances are good, you will miss something because you are reading faithful poetry.  And so, as you continue to read the Psalms, letting the words wash over you, I encourage you to keep track of what images the Psalmist writes about.  You may even want to keep a list, so you can go back some time.  And if you forget, let the Psalms cue you in.  By now you may have run across the word, "Selah" in the Psalms.  That word simply means, "Stop!", pause, do not pass Go and collect $200, rather let those words you just read sink in.  

May our "Selah", our pausing in the psalms, not only awaken us to the wisdom of these ancient prayers, but also the wisdom of God's still speaking and still creating presence in our midst...for indeed there is more than a trace of a grace in all of this.

Blessings!

Friday, September 13, 2013

Re-group




Recently I was leaving the house taking the kids somewhere.  We were three blocks away, when we suddenly realized we'd forgot something vital to where we were going.  So, we turned around and went back home.  The details of where we were and what we forgot are not really as important as the truth that practically everyone I know can tell a similar story.  

You are on the way to work and you forgot your lunch.
You are on the way to a birthday party and forgot the present
You are on the way to football practice and your intelligent son only has one shoe on.

These things happen to us all the time...or at least some of the things above happen all the time :)

In the midst of the journey of life and faith, U-turns happen.

I feel that way as I have not only been reading the Psalms each day, but also I have been reading about the Psalms.  Reading other people's perspectives on the psalms helps ground me and guide me as I wade my way through these ancient poems and hymns that speak honestly and in heartfelt ways to God.  One of the authors I just finished caused me to pull a U-turn on the Psalms.  The insight comes from Walter Brueggemann who is a UCC pastor, poet, theologian and teacher.  He is passionate about the Hebrew Bible and the Psalms.

In the essay I read he makes a case that we often read each psalm individually without connecting one Psalm to the next.  I confess that I had not been thinking much about the overall shape and story of the whole book.  I often engage Psalm 23 and think I can easily skip to Psalm 121 without missing a beat.  Brueggemann contends that the Psalms are trying to make a point between Psalm 1 and 150, trying to suggest something important to us.

Psalm 1 begins as a statement about faith and life.  The Psalmist begins with a claim about happiness, that our happiness comes from avoiding the wicked's counsel, not standing only in the complaint department line of life, and not sitting around with scoffers.  When we find ourselves in those locations, we can become like chaff blown about by the wind.  It is true.  If I watch too much cable news, I start to feel my soul sour and my hope wither.  Being cynical is contagious.  Instead, Psalm 1 says if we follow the Torah (teachings and commandments of God) life will be good.  That is the starting place of the Psalms.

Then for 148 psalms, Brueggemann says, the writers bump up against all the ways Psalm 1 just isn't always the case.  There are moments when you do follow the wisdom of God and others end up laughing at you.  There are moments you love another person and she breaks your heart.  There are moments you struggle, we struggle, the poor are oppressed, and bad things happen to good people.  That is why the first book of Psalms (psalms 1-41) are so heart-breakingly difficult to read.  Psalm 1 made a promise about God's world, but the reality of life and especially suffering contradicts that promise.  The real world doesn't always play by the simplistic view and pathway of Psalm 1, several Psalms shine a light brightly on that truth.

But by the time we get to Psalm 150, the psalmist is not in a fit of depression or despair.  Instead, the Psalmist is down right giddy and singing with gusto, for seemingly no reason at all!  The Psalmist doesn't give any rationale for giving God praise, other than the fact that God is God.  

To be sure, if all you read was Psalm 1 and then jumped to the end with Psalm 150, if you skipped the suffering, then it would be easy to think the Psalmist doesn't really know what life is like.  But in-between there is much struggle, pain is honestly named, and prayers for God to be God are shouted at the top of the Psalmist's lungs.  So, but the time you get near the end of the Psalms, you start to realize that our human orientation is toward offering our praise to God, not as a way to eschew our suffering, but as a way of naming the reality that praise can happen even when tears fall from our eyes.

While Brueggemann doesn't say it, that seems to me that is the meta-narrative of Scripture itself.  We begin with God speaking in Genesis 1 and God's fingerprints upon humanity in Psalm 2.  A statement of the goodness of our world and of our relationships to each other and God.  That, like in the Psalms, lasts for exactly one chapter!  By Genesis 3, humanity is hiding from God, pointing fingers at who is to blame for eating the fruit, and generally causing God much heartache.  If you leap all the way to Revelation, there is a new creation where all the nations stream to God and sing praise to God.  God doesn't end up destroying creation or condemning people.  God, being God, is a light that we all stream to for warmth and hope and peace and to awaken a song within us all.  In-between Genesis and Revelation is struggle, pain is honestly named - sometimes avoided- and life as we know it is spilled out across the pages of the Bible.

From a tree where Adam and Eve feasted on a fig to the trees by the river of life that bear fruit in its season in Revelation, God does not dismiss or cause our suffering.  God is there in the midst of our suffering and we call upon God because we believe God can offer us strength and hope and even awaken a hymn of praise...even if it is quiet praise...in the valley of the shadow of death.

I pray these insights are helpful for those of you trudging along with me in the psalms.  I pray this U-turn offers a trace of God's grace in the midst of our reading the psalms together offering us courage and insights into the connections between these poems and hymns of our ancestors.

Blessings!

Friday, September 6, 2013

Psalm 6



I’m no good to you dead, am I?
    I can’t sing in your choir if I’m buried in some tomb!  Psalm 6 ~ The Message

When reading the psalms, you quickly get the impression that the world is not right.  The psalmist will not stand idly by or indulge in self-denial.  And because that is usually what we've been taught to do, the psalms can rub us the wrong way.  I was taught growing up to not make a scene and often times given the implicit message that complaining does no good.  It was okay to grumble and grouse for a few moments in polite company, but if you carried on too long you would not win friends and influence people.  So, push down the grief, don't throw yourself a pity party, pick yourself up and use some cliche like, "Well, life is not easy."  As though the act of saying those compact cliches would in some strange way easy the pain. 

It rarely did...or does.

Rather, what often happens is it pushes the pain down to another time.  As the frustration of a situation at work, in our families, or our friend's words that struck too close to home for comfort simmer inside us, we try to keep on keeping on.  Until...

Until that store clerk says it is policy to only give in-store credit.  Or the person cuts us off in traffic.  Or we start yelling at the football player on the screen.  We use these moments to "let off some steam."  

The psalmist want to call a spade a spade, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable.  I mean...can you really say something like that to God?? In Psalm 6, the psalmist describes her situation as dire.  The world has left her hurting in ways too numerous to list.  And the psalmist says essentially what we all think,, how can a good and loving God allow that to happen?  It is the question of suffering.  It is really the question of how faith intersects life.  The psalmist goes on to talk about tears soaking his pillow at night, swimming among the grief.  Then, a very abrupt ending about enemies fleeing.

Psalm 6 doesn't answer the question of suffering and certainly does not give us some neat, tidy theological answer that "Well, it's God's plan."  Sometimes, I think rather than answering people's questions about suffering, the church can be better about helping people describe (in the most honest and heartfelt way) why they are suffering.  What do they think about suffering?  What do they experience as the problem and the possible solutions? 

While there are days I would rather have the neat, tidy answers, I wonder if that too is not another way of suppressing the pain, trying to live in denial rather than the reality of God's realm?  We live in the messy middle of life, where we get glimpses of God's realm (and grace) but it is not our permanent residence.  Instead, there are moments when the shadows creep and the tears flow and the pain aches.  The psalms acknowledge those moments and that truth.  And I wonder if the church needs to find ways to do the same today.  It would be different...difficult.  But I also trust in the wisdom of the psalms that often to do so might help us find a trace of God's grace after being honest about the suffering around us.

May you this day find your voice to offer to God the heartache that dwells within.  And may your heart be strangely warmed by the trace of God's grace as you do so.

Blessings ~

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Psalm 4



When I call, give me answers. God, take my side!  Click here to read all Psalm 4

There is honesty in the psalms that I truly find refreshing.  The very first verse of Psalm 4 says something I have thought so often, but rarely have the courage and chutzpah to say aloud actually to God.  In moments of prayer, we long for answers.  In moments of prayer, we want God to say, "You know, Wes, you are absolutely right.  You are brilliant!"  (Sometimes God's imaginary answers are almost embarrassing.)

But more often than not, I don't get immediate answers, emails, or texts from God with simple solutions to my prayers.  It takes time...waiting...patience.  Hence, why I want to join with the psalmists and say, "Please God, just give me an answer...and if it is not too much trouble...um...take my side."

If you read the rest of the Psalm you will see that the hymn/prayer/poetry of the psalm goes on to recall how previously, in the past, the psalmist was in a jam (between a rock and hard place) and God got the psalmist out of that fine messy he had gotten himself into before.  And so, the psalmist trusts that it will happen again.  But each passing second is a weight upon the psalmist's shoulders.

When we are waiting for medical tests or job interviews or for some situation to be resolved, looking back can help, but it distracts us for only so long.  Soon, we are back in the present moment, waiting and wondering why are things not hurrying up?

In the next set of verses, the Psalmist recounts what people are saying to her about her faith.  People laugh, scorn, and generally caught up in the so-called wisdom of the world.  But the Psalmist will not relent.  When others want the Psalmist to turn away from God and hunger for more in this world, the psalmist suddenly has the courage and chutzpah to say an emphatic, "No!"

I am not sure I always have the courage to resist the lure of more in this world.  Such a desire was made famous in the 1980's movie, Wall Street where Michael Douglas character talking to a group of people says, "Greed is good."  He goes on to extol how greed drives people to work harder.  But at some point, more is just more.  Another pair of shoes is just another pair of shoes.  Another iphone is just another iphone.  Sure it may have a cool new feature, but we can be certain that Apple is already working on the next phone and even the next generation after that.  The drive for more leaves the psalmist, and many today, saying, "Enough already."

And to realize also the truth that God is enough for all of us.  God's grace is enough to fill our lives with joy.  God's love is enough to get us through the waiting.  God's presence is enough even when we don't get an answer quickly or the answer we'd like.

When we arrive at that place, we sense more than a trace of God's grace that makes all the difference.

May it be so for you and me this day and this week in the midst of our waiting.

Blessings~